Crimson Tide Do some strange happenings at Harvard's business school foretell a deeper change?
(MONEY Magazine) – I just finished reading Robert Reid's Year One, the story of his first year at Harvard Business School back in the high-flying 1990s. It's supposed to give readers an inside look at what he learned on the road to an M.B.A., so I found it telling that Reid lavished his most descriptive prose on the many expensive recruiting dinners sponsored by firms like Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs.
Perhaps that's why I took notice of the latest statistics from HBS' prestigious business-plan competition, which at the height of the dotcom frenzy drew hordes of venture capitalists eager to throw money at soon-to-be grads.
In the 2000 contest, 57 teams submitted plans, among them schemes to offer online golf reservations and gourmet cooking instruction. In 2001, with far less money available for start-ups, the number of plans entered fell, not surprisingly, to 41. But--and this is what caught my eye--more than a quarter of them were for nonprofit or socially oriented companies. In fact, a separate track was dedicated to these ventures last year. And the faculty expects even more such plans in this year's contest, the results of which will be announced in April.
Nobody's suggesting that Harvard will or should stop training people to turn an honest profit. But I can't help but wonder: Are we seeing some kind of renaissance in civic-minded business at one of the country's premier executive training grounds? Scott Tobin, a partner at Battery Ventures, a VC firm that has advised and helped judge the competition, speculates that it's really just passing guilt over the get-rich-quick mentality of the '90s. Jeffrey Rayport, a former HBS lecturer who now heads Marketspace, a tech consultancy, notes that M.B.A.s are trained to figure out what society will reward. Perhaps they merely feel that, in the current climate, they have little to lose by doing something that isn't likely to make a lot of money. But when I asked Neil Houghton, whose plan to sell low-cost eyeglasses won the social enterprise competition in 2001, his motives seemed simple and heartfelt: "I want to focus on something I believe in and feel good about."
Of course, only time will tell if this trend will survive into the next buoyant market or if it's just an exercise in the laws of supply and demand--the kind you're assigned in the first year of business school.
--AMY DOCKSER MARCUS